I’ve been aware of songwriter Glen Hansard since his role in the film Once, but it’s only been with his most recent solo material that I’ve really taken a serious interest in his music. I recently stumbled across a KCRW performance on Youtube where he also talked at some length about his philosophy when it comes to songwriting. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Glen was incredibly articulate in talking about his craft, and I was fascinated. Glen’s been doing loads of press for his most recent album Didn’t He Ramble, so there’s lots of interviews out there online to pick over if (like me) you get a little obsessive over these things. Overall though, he keeps returning to the same key points. I’ll be scattering the clips from which I sourced his quotes on songwriting throughout this article.
I’m always surprised at how little songwriting is talked about considering that the music industry as a whole receives such a massive amount of media attention. I guess inevitably consumers are more interested in making mythologies of their musical heroes rather than exploring the nuts and bolts of what they do. Since Prince’s sad passing, there’s been so many articles lauding his ‘Craziest Stunts’ and ‘Weirdest Moments’. How I’d love to read a really in-depth interview (not that he really gave interviews) on how he wrote a song, from conception to birth. That’s why finding all these Glen Hansard conversations has been so refreshing – here’s a man talking plainly about how he writes songs, and talking about it as a craft. No myth-making, no avoiding the honest truth that we fail as much as we succeed. Good, honest hard-work.
Glen’s observations cut straight to the core of what songwriting is all about. In all honesty any one of these thoughts could have generated a whole essay; at one stage I considered turning this blog into a three part series. After a lot of pondering and rewriting, I decided to hone in on the points that I resonated most strongly with me. I tried to avoid following my musings down too many rabbit holes: this is just a small warren.
“Singing it, singing it, singing it, until it starts ringing true”
The notion of hard work is a central theme behind what Glen says. It’s a rather intimidating concept. Dragging a song into enough daylight that you can look at it and call it finished is often a long and difficult journey. When you cross the finishing line, you’re often so happy that you got there you’re very happy to say a song is finished and leave it at that. That’s where the ringing true part comes in. There’s a great many songs that I’ve written and completely forgotten about. I finished them, gave myself a breather, but when I came back to singing them again I couldn’t find any truth in them. Would those songs have had a longer shelf life if I’d only worked on them a bit harder, kept singing those lyrics, changing those lyrics, singing those lyrics again until I was finally happy with them?
The trouble is working too long at a song is equally liable to destroy it. Perspective becomes impossible caught up in the convoluted roots of the song, trying to untangle words and match up rhymes. For me, I think the greatest problem is that I often begin a song with too fixed an idea of what it’s supposed to be; I don’t allow it to grow in the direction it wants to, which can be fatal. One solution I’ve been trying out recently has been taking the songs away from all the tools that shape their growth; away from the page, away from the guitar. I’ve been listening to simple demos on early morning walks and just trying to sing along to them as naturally as possible and seeing what ideas are still flourishing by the time I get home.
“When you’re trying to get a lyric across the music takes a backseat.”
What comes first, the words or the music? A common question thrown at songwriters, and of course the answer is usually ‘it depends’. However, one of the challenges I’ve found myself coming up against recently is the disconnect with the music I’m making and the words I’m writing. My interest in African guitar music means that a lot of the guitar stuff I’m coming up with is rhythmically up-tempo and equally rather cheerful sounding. On the other hand, most of the lyrics in my notebook have a much more English identity, including a lot of baggage from the folk tradition and lyrical themes that don’t naturally lend themselves to music that makes you want to dance. My hope is that in demanding these two opposing forces work together I can come up with something innovative and different.
That being said, I question the wisdom in bending songs into shapes they don’t want to go into. It’s something of a conundrum. Would I be writing a better song if I wasn’t also trying to get it to sound like Tinariwen?
“Whenever I pick up a pen I wanna be smart . . . and you’ve immediately lost then”
I do worry about the amount of artifice in my writing. The first songs come easy, but when you’ve written twenty, or written fifty, there become less and less natural angles to lead you to something new. In seeking a different approach, the songs become intellectual exercises rather than something directly from the heart. By the time you’re properly into the deeper waters of songwriting, the process becomes a constant ebb and flow between applying the head and applying the heart to what you’re doing.
Overthinking has scuppered me a few times. For example, I raise my hand and admit I make an awful lot of use of imagery inspired by the sea. And a friend also pointed out to me that almost every song I write has a bird in it somewhere. For a little while I found myself discounting great lines that found metaphors in those places before I came to my senses and realised that I had to treat each song as its own entity. If someone notices a few themes crossing over then fair enough, I should just be glad they’ve listened to more than one song!
“I hear a lot of whining (in music). It’s an easy perspective to take. (But) there’s no vulnerability in moaning”
When I first started creative writing as a teenager, I wrote a lot of long, miserable poems (sorry to all my friends who had to read them). Glen’s right, it is an easy perspective, both from an emotional and a technical viewpoint. Writing provides a catharsis to what brings us down; burdens are lessened if we articulate the shadows in our lives. It also feels like there’re a lot more interesting words out there to play with when you’re hunting for metaphors and similes to describe the darkness.
Have I been whining? Scrolling back over the recent songs on this blog, I’d have to admit yes a little bit. I do notice a shift in outlook – I’ve moved from moaning about my own problems to complaining about the world’s problems. Despite, or perhaps because of, my years as a teenage miserabilist, I do try to provide light and shade. But is there more to offer? Glen talks about vulnerability, by which I think he means setting out what means the most to him and inviting the world to ridicule. His songs are very straight-talking. He talks about excising the lines which are merely there because they’re pretty, paring it down to the core of what he’s trying to say. He leaves himself no room to sidestep, whereas I’ve been guilty of surrounding my songs in too many shades of grey – perhaps it’s about this, maybe it’s about that, it can be about whatever as long as you like it. Perhaps that’s somewhat lazy, or even worse, cowardly.
“I didn’t want things to sound postured”
Most of the observations I’ve picked out from these interviews stand out as little nuggets of songwriting wisdom. However, this point I struggle with a little more. That old adage ‘write what you know’ comes from a similar place, urging against postures. Should every song be a straight line – beamed from the soul to the ears of the audience? A lot of Glen Hansard tunes are like that, and bloody good they are too, but even so, I quite like the kinks I put into that straight line. Are these postures? Perhaps, but I think they have some value. Again, after having written so many songs, coming straight from the heart, however pure, might also start to sound monotonous.
I think here that my environment is a factor. I’m a child of the English countryside, but I’m also a traveller, currently living in hot and dusty Cairo. The former is written in my DNA, but I don’t always want to be writing from the perspective of a pastoral folk picker. There’s another kind of song which is just as valid, where the songwriter’s role is closer to that of a storyteller. Consider a songwriter such as Nick Cave and his song The Mercy Seat, in which the protagonist is a convicted man sat upon the electric chair. Now as far as I’m aware, Cave has never returned from the dead (despite what his complexion might suggest), so The Mercy Seat has to be a posture, but it remains an elemental composition that connects in a visceral way. Likewise, I hope to be able to address Egypt in song from different angles, not solely from the perspective of a confused and slightly overheated foreigner.
“I would like to write a song that someone can use . . . a song is a good, functional piece of furniture, like a chair”
I invite you to sit on my song. Is it comfortable? Look, it even reclines if you push this button! Seriously though, I like this consideration of the utility of a piece of music. Perhaps every song could be categorised as such, the holy trinity of getting married, getting buried or getting laid. A nice concept to put behind an EP of three songs – one of each!
Of course people are so peculiar almost any song will find someone who can make use of it in some way. I don’t think it’s really possible to imagine how someone might use any particular song you put out there, just ponder all the people who choose something wildly inappropriate like Every Breath You Take or In the Air Tonight as the first dance of their wedding!
“If you’re given this sacred gift of being able to make music (to any level), then you should really be using it to inspire”
It’s difficult to direct this statement towards myself. Do I possess a sacred gift? It would sound rather bigheaded to say so. Yet I do believe that music is sacred, and if I’m going to ascribe that gift to a busker I saw in the street last week then it would be foolish not to let it encompass myself. There’s been a handful of occasions that I know of when my music has given inspiration to others, but in a rather English way I’ve never been able to say with confidence ‘here’s a song that will inspire you’. When I write it’s in an effort to absorb and repurpose what inspires me. I guess there’s a natural chain of inspiration at work; whoever I’m listening to was probably trying to do much the same thing, but equally I’ve rarely let the question ‘will this inspire others’ enter my own creative process. It will be interesting to see what happens to my songwriting if I start asking that question.
“Perfect songs are prayers . . . they don’t exclude anyone”
Despite the misgivings touched on above, this I certainly can agree with. Whatever angle you approach a song; it’s the universal elements that will generate the most resonance with the listener. I’d certainly conclude that my most successful songs have been my most inclusive. Whatever way I find a song, whether the story it tells is mine or not, remember that at its core, it has to tap into that artisanal wellspring of truth, of emotion, that pools in everyone.
“How do you coax a wren into your living room, document it, and put it out in the world undamaged”
Unashamedly ornithologically minded as I am, I want to close with this lovely metaphor from Glen on the work of a songwriter. What do I finally take away from these reflections? I think I need to work a bit harder on how I craft my lyrics. I need to think a little deeper about what my songs are saying in the earliest stages of the writing process, and try not to be seduced by pretty lines or imagery that distract from the core of what’s being said. I suspect a useful approach is to write a lot more material; write a song twice as long as it needs to be and pare it back down to the bone, selecting only the best cuts.
Reading back over Glen’s musings, and my own responses, I’m left a little confused but ultimately inspired. The central thesis is clear – work at it, and love the process. Apply high standards, but don’t lose contact with your instincts. And in the final act, remember and accept that sometimes the wren will sometimes fly away despite every effort on your side, and occasionally it lands in your cupped hands without even being invited.
You can buy Glen Hansard’s album Didn’t He Ramble here. I can’t recommend it highly enough.